Evangelism Must Be 'Way of Life, Not Event,' Says Finley

Pastor Mark Finley, pictured here during an outreach effort in the Ukraine, believes evangelism is useful and effective only when the church ministers on a continual basis in the community.Source: Adventist News Network

[April 18, 2007] If your concept of evangelism involves "mega dollars," a "star speaker" and a "dip and drop" attitude toward new believers, you need to update your definition, says Pastor Mark Finley, a vice president for the world Seventh-day Adventist Church.

"If you see evangelism as an event, it is destined to have minimal results. If evangelism is not an ongoing process rooted in revived and equipped local churches where new believers will be nurtured, it is destined to be less than God's ideal," Finley says. He believes evangelism is useful and effective only when the church ministers on a continual basis in the community.

An evangelist himself, Finley is a fervent advocate of outreach. "If you believe in the Bible, evangelism is relevant," he explains, citing Jesus' instruction in Mark 16:15 to preach the gospel to all the world. "As a church, we're interested in people. And that interest in people demands an interest in evangelism."

But evangelism is hardly one-size-fits-all, Finley is quick to add.

At its broadest, "evangelism is simply sharing Jesus in every way possible with every person possible. It's praying with a neighbor going through a divorce. It's offering Jesus' peace to a person gripped with cancer. It's small groups and one-on-one sharing."

In recent years many Christian communities, including Adventists, have increasingly turned to small group ministries, the Internet and other progressive modes of outreach, often thought to better resonate with a largely secular and skeptical society.

Finley, who is also director of the church's Center for Global Evangelism, fully supports experimental modes of evangelism, such as online Bible courses, Internet evangelists, and full use of TV, radio and other mainstream media venues in what he calls a "high-tech, personal-touch gospel." He also believes that, through small group outreach, "the church can offer a sense of connectedness and identity through a spiritual community" that particularly impacts young people.

Finley also says doctrinal topics "must be presented in the context of their relevancy to modern thinking and modern values." He cites the Adventist belief in the Seventh-day Sabbath as an example. The church cannot simply approach the Sabbath "as a proof" new believers should arbitrarily adopt. Instead, it should present the Sabbath "as our identity in an age of evolution. The Sabbath tells us who we are and imparts self-esteem and real meaning in our lives"--all concepts Finley says the modern mind better relates to.

While he welcomes new outreach methods, Finley is not about to turn his back on traditional public meetings. But, he says, there is a right way and a wrong way to conduct them. Adventists must continually reevaluate the mindset driving public evangelism, he says. Any evangelistic effort that banks on emotional manipulation or a celebrity speaker to ratchet up the number of new believers on the record only sullies the "authenticity of the gospel."

"I think offering a free Bible or other supplemental materials is perfectly legitimate motivation for attendance," Finley adds. But beyond that, "any sort of gimmickry or bribery demeans genuine evangelism."

Finley doesn't fault the methodology of public evangelism as a tool to Tell the World so much as he questions some of the people doing the telling. "The greatest need is not new methods, but new people," he says. "We need a church interfacing with friends and neighbors. The church should be the arena of God's grace in the community. The church must reach into the community and share Jesus' love and peace with everyone."

Few Adventists question the value of a church compassionately involved in its community. But many wonder if public evangelism still connects with non-believers. "Consider Rome in the First Century," Finley suggests. "You had a people in the clutches of hedonism, military might, immersed in culture and the arts, music and theater--really the foundation of the modern world--and two religions that had failed to provide meaning, and into that culture Jesus said, 'Go preach.'"

The trappings of secularism can vie for attention all they want, but they don't sway Jesus' bottomline instruction, Finley maintains. And he knows firsthand that public evangelism still works, most notably in developing countries such as India and South America. "To say it's not effective is to deny reality. Ninety-three percent of the Adventist church is located outside of North America. In those countries, people are looking for something they recognize they don't have."

That 'something,' he says, is God. Finley agrees people in the Western world may not be quite as attuned to that need. "People may have great jobs and cars and don't realize they need God or that they're missing something. Life may have to throw [them] a curveball before they open up to spirituality." In such cases, Finley agrees that cultivating a one-on-one relationship may allow for more effective outreach than a large public meeting would.

The key word? Flexibility. There are myriad means of reaching people for Christ. As long as they involve Adventists actively committed to ongoing community involvement, Finley says the church fully supports them. On the other hand, any mode of evangelism that isolates new believers in a church that does little or nothing to nurture newfound Christianity begs failure.

World church president, Pastor Jan Paulsen, recently reminded a group of young people studying at Adventist-owned La Sierra University just how crucial sustainable spiritual infrastructure is to retaining new believers.

He said those planning outreach efforts must coordinate with the local church to ensure new believers will be welcomed into a strong, supportive network of Adventists with what he called "contagious energy" for the work of the Lord. "You need a sense of fellowship, community and a sense of belonging. You need to have people who care about and nurture your spiritual welfare or you will die [spiritually]."

"The church is the body of Christ lovingly ministering and sharing God's love to the community," Finley concludes. "That doesn't happen in three weeks, but takes place perpetually. True evangelism is a way of life, not an event."